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Monday, August 27, 2012

MISSTRESS BARBARA - I'M NO HUMAN

MapleMusic Recordings MRCD 6503 (May 2009)

Rating: 9.3/ A+

Category: Electronica/Tech House
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k)

Musicians:
- Guest singer: Sam Roberts
- Bass Guitar:
- Drums: Keyboards: Bjorn Yttling
- Electric Guitar: Francis Boudreau
- Keyboards: Bjorn Yttling

Produced by Barbara Bonfiglio    
Recorded by
Mixed by Peter Van Uytfanck at Apollo Studios/Montreal
Mastered by Emily Lazar and assisted by Joe LaPorta
Design [Sleeve]:
Layout:
Photography [Back Cover]:


"Between the fear of diving into the unknown and the pain of regretting not to, I chose to be afraid."

It was not that long ago that a female DJ was a rarity. If you look back at the history of dj'ing you will only find but a handful of names in those pioneering early-1970s; Lizz Kritzer, Wendy Hunt and first and foremost, Sharon White come to mind. In the decades that followed, the sheer numbers grew, though admittedly still remaining a minority in the male-dominated profession. It was not until the arrival of the new millennium that the playing field started to level and the gender issue passed from curious novelty act to plain normal acceptance. Coincidentally, another emerging phenomenon was the rise - and fall - of the 'Superstar DJ' as well as the role transition from 'spin-DJs' to 'producer-DJs'. What is still rather scarce is the feminine side of the latter, even more so if we add lyrics, music writing and singing to the mix. This segues us to one Barbara Bonfiglio. Most of the time going by her stage name - Misstress Barbara and the occasional Barbara Brown - the then eight year old emigrated from Sicily, Italy to Montreal, Canada. Which in a way is prescient on her part since the latter is truly the mecca of Beat Culture. 



Although Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Manchester, Munich and Berlin are renowned as the birthplace of house, techno and other related beat-music forms, the Canadian cosmopolitan city is a veritable melting pot of music styles, culture and people. Think New York meets Europe meets East and 'while we're all here, let's make it a big party' and that in a nutshell sums up the typical MTL summer vibe. This metropolitan 'beat love-in' is nothing new; since the dawn of disco and the ensuing new wave, house and techno years, there was no shortage of quality dance venues such as The Lime Light, Le Lovers, 1234 and in later years - Stereo - pumping up the deep house 'four-on-the-floor' tradition on what many considered the best club sound system in the world. Boasting an all analog rig: 1620 Urei mixer; tube processors; Bryston and McIntosh amps on multiple Tad 1603s; 1201s; 4002s and vintage JBL tweeters / horn / speaker combinations [aka Systems By Shorty]; it was an 'audiophile's wet dream' come true.


 

 

Admiring the way underground DJs worked the tables, in 1995 at age twenty, she inevitably switched from drums to platters & mixer and never looked back. Honing her craft among such greats as Barbadian-born British 'veteran' Carl Cox and Canadian counterpart tech-whiz Richie Hawtin aka Plastikman, the lady's new found love and thirst for knowledge made a name for herself driving her towards the rave road of glory, hence Misstress Barbara was born. The early years were mostly spent spinning vinyl and releasing numerous singles & EPs culminating in 2001 with the mix album Relentless Beats [Moonshine Music MM 80143-2] and a 'Vol 2 follow-up a year later. Subsequent to that, MB01 and MB02 [Trust the DJ] were both launched in 2002.

By their very nature, soul and disco, sharing a more humanistic heritage and complex musical structure, retain a certain challenge regarding tempo variations and 'break' possibilities - forcing one to be constantly on the edge. By contrast, house and techno's '808' rock solid bpms and long instrumental passages is like a double-edged sword permitting long harmonic mixes, 'drop ins & outs' but eliminating the 'fear factor' of ruining a groove transition. It is not surprising that most modern house/techno DJs eventually yearn for some higher aspirations explaining in part the 'explosion' of producer-DJs in recent years. Coming from a young-age musical background, the Misstress was naturally inclined to pursue new ventures also. It is often life's unexpected turn of events that leads to results; in Barbara's case, the loss of her father on Christmas Eve 2006 was a great inspiration to free her soul by creating her first original album titled I'm No Human.


 
 
Oddly, there seems to be no vinyl issue. In this great vinyl-renewal era and given the musical style, beat culture scene and the Misstress' love of vinyl, this is a major marketing mistake on the part of MapleMusic Recordings and should be rectified immediately.



The double gatefold cardboard jacket shows Miss B adorned with what looks like 'volcano fire'. The latter reappears inside on the 'left wing' while the 'right wing' is dominated by a facial close-up. Tastefully simple, the CD label replicates the central graphics when perfectly aligned horizontally on the jewelbox 'spindle'. On high resolution audio systems, the black-background label will help in getting the maximum out of the pits with a minimum of errors; all things being equal, resulting in better and 'warmer' sound. Finally, the back cover illustrates the recurring theme of the fiery energy with the eleven song titles listed in small print. Included is a matching-color folded 'booklet-type' sheet containing all song lyrics and typical credits. The presentation as a whole, while not outstanding is slightly above average. The album was mixed by Peter Van Uytfanck at Apollo Studios/Montreal. Mastering was accomplished by Emily Lazar at The Lodge/NYC and assisted by Joe Laporta.


The album opens with the title track "I'm No Human". The overall level is not too loud, a welcome relief from what is CDs 'new normal'. Be it a movie, a book or even at that an audio review, the first sequences or chapter are capital; same goes for a music album, getting those first bars right, sets-up the mood and to a great extent determines the lasting impression of an artist' worth and creative standing. That is why when mastering a CD or LP project, I always recommend to musicians to wisely choose that first cut: you want it to impress your 'audience' with a great song and sound. I'm happy to report that the Misstress and the people surrounding her know what they are doing. Rarely have I heard - especially on CD - such a fine combination of great 'hook' and balanced sound and one only hopes that this is representative of the entire body of work. The uptempo beat shows good bounce from the bass synth riff clinging to the kick track with the programmed hi-hat marking every second beat as if in 2/4 pattern; all three perfectly EQ'd and mixed in level. Vocal delivery takes on a mostly monotonous tone in accented English apart from one French sentence thrown in that lends it a Montreal 'flavoring'. The mild process efx added to her voice in tandem with the minimalist music setting, gives it a dark intriguing mood. As the chorus is repeated, slowly a crescendo of middy synth takes on a 'nastiness' of its own. During the break, the latter is panned, envelope-filtered and finally the kick ceases beating, leaving clap track and panned 'train-type efx' phasing. 



"Is It OK" featuring sweet Bjorn Yttling starts off with cello-sounding synth riff followed by solid 4/4 syncopated kick every sixteen beats in turn followed by bass synth run reaching down low. A trebly synth shaker counterbalances to perfection the lowest frequencies, maintaining the high sound quality of the opening track. 




Leonard Cohen's classic "Dance Me To The End Of Love" gets a new twist in this mid-tempo 'face lift'. Solid syncopated kick plus sparse synth riff leads, before hi-hat spices things up and a crescendoed envelope-pitch-shifted synth, climaxes onto the first verse. With main melody playing in the background, left & right high frequency percs come in and remind me of vintage Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder arrangements & productions a la "Try Me I Know We Can Make It' from 1976's A Love Trilogy [Oasis OCLP 5004] and electro disco releases circa 1977 like Les Rockets' "Future Woman" (Decca 78.001) as well as Space and Kebekelektrik's "Magic fly". There are plenty of subtle asymmetric electronic details complementing the superb purity in the synths. Another killer track in both departments.

"Four On The Floor" was inspired by a friend's negative query on teckhouse music in general. Barbara's answer came in the form of a sarcastic caricature song, emphasizing the typical 'native ingredients' of the form. Thus the track opens with a big impressive kick (ass) 808, producing one of the best, tight-fisted, 'in your chest' bass-drums ever put on a CD ('five-inchers' need not apply). The highly repetitive, slightly obnoxious chorus best be taken lightly. The break employs a cheesy 'chiptune' style synth after which the kick slams back in. Francis Boudreau adds a touch of guitar on this and the next cut. This is the first track of the CD, sounding somewhat compressed/limited for loudness gain -- more so during the chorus -- but seems justified considering the song's primary intent. Even so, it remains excellent sonic-wise, though a bit lesser than the preceding tracks.



Do not panic, "Push Pull" is not an anti-single-ended anthem. Kidding aside, track-5 starts out sounding like an ol' scratchy 78. This slow tempo gem goes down quite low changing the ambience and pushing the album and its Misstress in interesting new directions; a kinda sleazy atmosphere. The 'cushiony' bass beat recalls Nine Inch Nails "Closer" from 1994's The Downward Spiral [Nothing/Interscope HALO 8 STPR 5509] as well as Fern Kinney's 1979 discothèque remake of "Groove Me" [T.K. Disco 401] originally a King Floyd 1970 soul classic 7-inch single [Chimneyville CH-435].

The slow tempo continues and digs even deeper into darkness and low frequencies with "Ouais". Yes the 'Blade Runner mood' is a bit of a throwback to the early to mid-1980s weltschmerz feeling reminiscent of such songs as Anne Clark's "Sleeper in Metropolis" and it's B-side "Self Destruct" (Ink Records INK 1213). Great edgy, pure, highly defined synth; subtle panned percussion; perfect mix and sound balance by engineers Peter Van Uytfanck and Emily Lazar. Almost instrumental, this track showcases a lot of researched ambience cues, layers of panned mid percs culminating in 'chip music' stylings. This is the first of three successive outstanding tracks. As you probably know by now, I am quite finicky for sound and must admit this is as close to perfection that I have heard for this genre on CD or any other format at that. Kudos!

The volcanic "Etna" follows the darkish feel of the last two tracks. Mid-tempo kick and clap groove, introduces songé atmosphere of Bernard Thibodeau's sparse reverberated piano, before modulated bass synth run accompanies vocals. The English verses change to Italian chorus reminding me of Pacifika's Silvana Kane - that I reviewed in July - who frequently alternates from English to Spanish to French in a same song. Panned intimate vocals layered over syncopated beats. Superb sound; perfect exploitation of the full frequency spectrum (FFRR); excellent articulated kick with complementary treble 'shaker'. At the risk of repeating myself this qualifies as the best 'song-based' electronica sound on CD ever heard. The mix and mastering is spot on. 


"J'ÉtaisUne Fleur" is the triumvirate apogee of the Misstress' compositions. Panned modulated synth run, accompanied by simple piano - arranged by Ariane Moffatt - for the intro. Kick comes in plus delicate percs and hi-hat highlights. Cellist Chloé Dominguez brings sweeping strings perfectly soothing the saddish melody, sharing some emotive cues with Mexican electro-ambient creator Murcof. This is what I would classify as the zenith in 'emotional electronica'. Barbara's small accent and delay efx gives the song a rare combination of light sensuality and pensive melancholy as if 'Stereolab plays French chanson'. The highs are warmly detailed; there is equilibrium throughout the frequency bandwidth. As the coda approaches, there are less and less tracks; the kick ceases and we appear to be back at the beginning leaving only the modulated synth and piano; the latter having the last say. This is the track you do not want to pass over; very strong songcraft skill. It shows another side of The Misstress that I doubt many people knew or expected coming from a DJ. It is very rare that I would not change one iota on a recording be it for song structure or sound but here I can only say perfection. For such to be the case implies that everyone and every link in the long chain that culminates in a recording got it right, at the correct level and "spiritually" understood what had to be communicated. Bravo! 



The tempo switches gear from jogging to "I'm Running" featuring Canadian rock singer Sam Roberts lending his voice to what is the only 'commercial-leaning' track on the album. The opening chords borrow heavily on Lou Reed's 1972 classic "Walk on the Wild Side" from Transformer (RCA LSP-4807). Vocals come in on kick, with Barbara up first in the center and Roberts second more on the right and the chorus sung in unison. Some nice "ha" "ha" sounds blend in the background and a tambourine-like perc on the left shares stage with a 'dirty-sounding' low-sampled clap.
  
The first part of "Four Days Apart" recalls the short 1979-80 period that fused New Wave with synthpop exemplified by Gary Numan's early albums and especially OMD's "Enola Gay" from Organisation (Dindisc) with emphasis on the double-punch kick in front. But a minute or so from the coda, the energetic song takes a fascinating left turn into a heavier direction reminding me of heavy-electrodisco-rock hybrids such as France's Les Rockets main four hits: 1976's "Future Woman", 1978's "On the Road Again", 1979's "Electric Delight” and 1980's "Galactica". The particular distortion filtered efx applied on François Plante's bass-guitar and song style would be interesting to explore in an upcoming album, perhaps more rockish in flavor.

"Talk To Me" has a superb original intro boasting a solid kick. Filtered dirtyish percs; electric bass funks things up; Brazilian Girls drummer Aaron Johnston adds a very engaging aggressive bold groove; hi-hat and original 'narrower-band' accented vocals come on simultaneously while BG's singer Sabina Sciubba lends b-v; groove gets busier; handclaps bring party feel. Finally a brass trio of tenor, trumpet and trombone celebrate the grand finale. What a closer. Try not to bob your head, tap your foot or dance in your seat - good luck. Bring on the Party!



Summing up, Misstress Barbara has outdone herself on this outstanding debut album, fusing highly danceable teckhouse with darker emotive songcraft along with exemplary production values, combining opposing strengths of warmth and crispness. When I evaluated Pacifika's second album Supermagique [Six Degrees Records 657036 1168-2] last July, I had concluded that although 'definitely above average', I had reservations on the choice of engineers Emily Lazar over that of Ken Lee; attributing the CD's higher compression to her. That this was in fact the case, or somebody else's directives, only those present at the sessions or 'in the loop' know the answer. What there is no confusion though is the superb work from engineer Lazar and assistant Joe Laporta on mastering this CD, not neglecting Bonfiglio's fine production as well as all parties involved, i.e. great team work. Also, although the album sounds modern and fresh in songcraft, I cannot but admire the many sound-textured details that hark back to the golden age of mid to late 1970s multi-track recording when -- disco, electro and prog -- producers were more concerned with sound layering than plain loudness level.

Inside the gatefold it is written: "Dedicated to my father". I'm sure he would have been very proud of his daughter and would probably tell her that she made the right choice and has nothing to fear. ______________________________________________________________________

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